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The Paying Guests

by Sarah Waters

McClelland & Stewart


How effortless great writers make it seem, this business of novel writing. Sarah Waters, no little stranger to the art, has taken matters to a new level with her latest book, The Paying Guests. If anyone asks you what the components of a novel should be, if anyone out there wants a primer on the architecture, the intent, the pace of a great story, refer them to this one. It is a great achievement.
Sarah Waters is especially adept at using social history as one of the drivers of the action in her novels, and the new book again shows how smoothly she manages to incorporate the depth of her research.
The story begins on what might seem like predictable ground; Frances Wray and her widowed mother, in straitened circumstances in the wake of the Great War, are forced to take in lodgers in order to maintain their London house.
Frances, from whose viewpoint the tale unfolds, is an admirable character, practical and sensible. She is resigned to making the best of the situation, and to becoming old before her time.
The tenants, a young married couple, introduce an entirely different, and modern, sensibility to the household, and Frances, uncomfortable enough in her new role as landlady, can’t help but be drawn gradually into their orbit, dangerously so.
At a critical juncture she acts decisively, and her life is changed, perhaps hanging in the balance.
To say more would be unfair, and unnecessary.
This is the most suspenseful novel you will encounter in a long time. It is, in places, excruciating in its intensity. It is a story of life and death, love, and morality, and it is impossible to put down.
Its absence from the Booker list is incomprehensible.
Sarah Waters is a terrific novelist and this is her best book yet. The seeming ease with which she has accomplished it is particularly dazzling.